Tradition and Design in the Iliad

By C. M. Bowra | Go to book overview

IV
SOME PRIMITIVE ELEMENTS

IN our attempt to reconstruct the origins of the Greek epic we have drawn freely on parallels in other literatures, and so long as we are considering not the Iliad but its forerunners, the comparison with other primitive poetry is legitimate. For early poetry is usually recited, and is therefore conditioned by its hearers and their desires. The bard who composes for recitation faces much the same difficulties wherever he is, and for this reason comparisons drawn from other languages are both legitimate and valuable. But, when we consider the Iliad in its present form, these parallels from other early poetry may prove delusive. The complete Iliad has passed beyond the domain of primitive poetry, in that it has a character of its own and must be considered as a whole. In this it differs from traditional epics like the Kalevala or the Mahabharata. They draw their long length along with little thought for anything but the individual episodes. The Iliad aims at a unity and achieves it. So it is not a primitive epic as the others are, even if it was still recited and developed from similar origins as theirs.

Because it is a unity, the Iliad cannot be called primitive, and can claim to be a work of art. But it is developed from primitive poetry and it shows marks of its origin. In it simple elements are mixed with elements far more sophisticated, and because of this mixture it holds a special place in literary history. It marks a transition from early recited poetry, composed in accordance with strict conventions, to a more sophisticated poetry where the conventions are put to new uses. Its transitional character may perhaps be seen better if we compare it with other poems composed under rather similar conditions. The Song of Roland is a development of a simple song sung at Hastings, but the poem in the Oxford manuscript is structurally not primitive. It is constructed with masterly skill, and it is a unity. It tells of one main action only, the betrayal of Charlemagne's army by Ganelon. Outside this it hardly strays, and it leaves

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Tradition and Design in the Iliad
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Contents ix
  • I - Tradition and Design 1
  • II - The Origins of the Epic 27
  • III - The Hexameter 53
  • IV - Some Primitive Elements 67
  • V - Repetitions and Contradictions 87
  • VI - The Similes 114
  • VII - The Language 129
  • VIII - The Historical Background 156
  • IX - The Characters 192
  • XI - Homer and the Heroic Age 234
  • XII - Homer's Time and Place 251
  • Index 275
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